Design of greatness: How Adrian Newey became an F1 designer

Adrian Newey has been Formula One's dominant designer for the past decade. But his career stretches right back to 1980. Adam Cooper talks to him about those crucial formative years.

Adrian Newey has achieved remarkable success during the past decade with Williams and McLaren. Indeed, it would not be wrong to say that in recent times the world championship has essentially been a battle between Michael Schumacher’s talent behind the wheel and Newey’s talent behind the scenes. At the moment the diffident Englishman has the edge on the Ferrari ace, having contributed to five world drivers’ titles with Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Mika Haldtinen.

Like Schumacher in the lesser formulae, Newey, in a career that began 20 years ago, soon caught the eye. His early years reflect the way he works; a series of carefully chosen and logical moves, each one improving himself and his prospects.

His passion for racing, and desire to get involved on the technical side, developed in the days when he still had a healthy head of hair.

“My father was a vet,” he says, “so there’s no obvious connection there. But while he wasn’t so much a fan of motor racing, he was an amateur engineer. He had a workshop with a lathe, welding equipment and so forth. He used to do a lot of model engineering, and he also had a succession of Mini Coopers and Lotus Elans. I became interested in racing when I was young, and I think the first Fl race I went to was when Peter Revson won and Jody Scheckter lost it at Woodcote.”

That trip to the 1973 British GP clearly fired up the H-year-old Newey who, four years later, headed to university with an unusual career path in mind.

“I studied aeronautics and astronautics. The aim of doing that was to get into motor racing. I figured that racing cars were more closely related to aircraft than to road cars. They’re linked in many ways; not just the aerodynamics, but construction methods, systems, and now, the way they use electronics.”

Adrian turned down more prestigious options to study in Southampton. It was a smart decision; the university had a world-renowned wind tunnel favoured by many top racing organisations.

“March, Brabham and McLaren were using the wind tunnel at the time, and it was a good way to see what people were doing. Southampton had quite good contacts with the motor racing fraternity. Because of that interest, choosing a motor racingorientated final year project was allowable, so I did ground-effect aerodynamics.

“I started looking for a job [in 1980] by doing the usual thing of writing round all the teams I could find addresses for. Most didn’t reply, and those that did said, ‘No vacancy’. It was the usual Catch 22; they only took people with experience. I went to see Tiga, who were making F2 cars, and they were quite interested. But they didn’t have the money to employ me. I was actually on the verge of staying on to do a PhD on helicopter rotor blades, when Harvey Postlethwaite rang me up, a good two or three months after I’d written a letter to Fittipaldi. So I went up for an interview and he offered me a job the next day.”

The team was struggling near the back of the F1 grid at the time but, at Hesketh and Wolf, Harvey had established himself as one of the top designers of his era. For someone with Newey’s ambition, it must have been like meeting God.

“It was, very much so. I remember turning up for the interview on a Ducati 900S S. Harvey had a Moto Guzzi Le Mans and the two bikes were great rivals at the time. Before we started on the interview he looked at the Ducati and asked if he could ride it. He went round the trading estate on it and I think we spent the first hour chatting about bikes rather than cars. It was a good start.”

Newey soon got involved on the new F8, introduced at mid-season.

“I was joining the aerodynamics team. What I didn’t realise was that I was going to be the aerodynamics team. The F8 was a quite a good car, but there was no money for development.”

Eventually the Fittipaldi team splintered and its management team split up: Harvey went off to Ferrari, Peter Warr to Lotus and Peter Macintosh to March. Newey had an offer from Warr to move to Lotus, and one from Macintosh to join March. Newey took the less glamorous route, feeling that he would get more experience more quickly at a production race car maker like March. Another shrewd move. Most would have jumped at the chance to progress in grand prix racing, especially under the wing of Colin Chapman, but he preferred the traditional ‘jack of all trades’ apprenticeship the likes of Patrick Head and John Barnard had at Lola.

“That’s the great thing about it. You’re involved in different formulae in all sorts of different areas aerodynamics, race engineering and mechanical. You learned a lot very quickly.

“I joined in two positions, firstly as race engineer. I was originally going to be with Christian Danner in Formula 2 in ’82, but he fired me after the first race. But Johnny Cecotto said he’d take me. I had one test session before the first race and then it was, ‘Off we go’. At the same time I was working in the drawing office in the week as a detail draughtsman.

“March’s GTP sportscar was an unloved project, lying on the side, and because my final year project had been on ground effects, and ground effects applied to sportscars, I thought! should be able to do something with it. I went to Robin Herd and asked, and he said, ‘Be my guest’, but there was no budget to build a model and go wind tunnel testing. The car was designed by Max Sardou, and I modified it just by eye, using the results from my final year project, and took it over to Daytona. That was a hell of an experience, I can tell you.”

So, in January 1983, a 23-year-old and still very green Newey suddenly found himself running an IMSA GTP car in a 21-.hour race.

“The car was finished about a week before the race, and I went with it, along with two or three mechanics from March. We arrived to find that the guy Robin had sold the car to was a wealthy American who reckoned he was pretty good in his Ferrari road car, and fancied a go at Daytona. We managed to persuade him that this wasn’t a good idea. He had a couple of reasonable drivers, Marty Hinze and Terry somebody [Wolters], and a third driver [Randy Lanier] turned up who was completely myopic, with spectacles like milk bottles.

“We started the race, and I sort of assumed the role of team manager because there wasn’t anybody else. We had no timing system so we didn’t know where we were in the order. We’d been working through the night before the race so were dog-tired, and the feeling was that it didn’t really matter; we reckoned it would break down two hours into the race and then we could all go home.

“We got to about lam and the thing was still going when! went off for a pee. Like at Indianapolis, Daytona has this tower with all these numbers on it, and 88 was at the top. I thought, ‘That’s familiar’. I dashed back to the pits and, sure enough, we were 88. We actually led until it rained and we got water in the distributor cap at about 8am, but we eventually finished second. That gave it a bit more credibility; Al Holbert got involved and it became a serious effort. We did a Porsche engine installation and, in his hands, it won most of the races it entered for the rest of the year.”

Newey oversaw the 84G IMSA car before heading off for his first season in CART, where March loaned him out to one of its top teams.

“I went to Truesports and Bobby Rahal, where I assumed the job of race engineer and development engineer. We developed the car substantially throughout the season, and got a lot of weight out of it. I enjoyed that year, but again I was very wet behind the ears as far as race engineering was concerned. I went to just one oval test session before the season. It’s a whole different ball game. But I’ll always be very grateful to Bobby. He taught me a lot about how to engineer the car, and it was a very friendly series.”

Newey spent much of his time living near Truesports in quiet Columbus, Ohio (“the downside!”), while also logging thousands of air miles.

“Ralph Bellamy had done the March 84C Indycar, and I think he was showing less interest in doing the 85C, so Robin asked me to do it. It won’t go down as one of the cars I’m particularly proud of, but it was my first clean-sheet-of-paper car; the sportscar had been an adaptation of an existing car. Unfortunately, the 85C was done while commuting, so I didn’t have time to do it properly.”

Nevertheless Newey soon established a reputation as the hottest young engineer in Cart. He continued with Rahal through 1985, before joining Michael Andretti at Kraco the following year, where he oversaw his own 86C design. He then decided it was time to start looking at Formula 1 once more and, in the middle of 1986, joined the Beatrice/FORCE team, initially as race engineer to Patrick Tambay.

“I made it known to Robin [Herd] before the start of the year that I’d like to get into F1. He was tying to get a grand prix team together, but I had an offer from Beatrice through Carl Haas. Robin said he was not ready to do El yet, so told me to take it.

“That became my first race engineering job in F1. The timing was unfortunate in hindsight I think my first race was the French GP, and very shortly after that Carl decided to wrap the team up. It was certainly a very talented drawing office. Unfortunately the management style of Teddy Mayer seemed to be to tell Ross Brawn, Neil Oatley and myself that we were the boss, and then let us fight it out. The atmosphere wasn’t as congenial as it might have been, and it isn’t a period I look back on with any fondness. They announced their withdrawal in November which, from a design point of view, was too late to do anything. So I decided to sit back and see what happened.”

Haas invited him to return to the US to engineer Mario Andretti “To have the chance to work with Mario wasn’t something to be turned away easily” but it wasn’t long before another Formula One opportunity came along. Wealthy Japanese Akira Akagi linked up with March to set up the Leyton House team, and Newey was asked to join as technical director. It was just what he was looking for.

“It was a good little outfit. Most of the people there had come out of the production side of March, so I knew them. What took me a while to understand was the difference between working for a team which is already organised, and joining a team which is brand new, and building it up. It’s quite different. In designing the 881, where we fell down was in understanding how to manage and grow that team.”

Ivan Capelli and Mauricio Gugelmin were the drivers, and for a while Leyton House really shook the establishment.

“Later Akagi was having financial problems, and we were having a tough time with the car technically. We were using the Southampton tunnel, which had problems with its boundary layer, and we didn’t realise it. So we started developing a car round a wind tunnel which had flow problems, and that led to a very uncompetitive 1989 and first part of 1990. Finally we got our own tunnel, found the problem and changed the aerodynamics for the French Grand Prix.”

In that memorable race, Capelli and Gugelmin ran near the front and, after leading 45 laps, the Italian finished second behind the Ferrari of Prost and ahead of Ayrton Senna’s McLaren. But within weeks Newey had switched to Williams as chief designer. He could have joined Arrows as their technical chief, and for a lot more money than Williams were offering, but he knew he needed experience with a big, successful team. Plus Renault’s engine programme was gathering momentum. Make that another shrewd move.